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NL Central Closer Situations and Bullpen Previews

This week, we move on to the fifth division in our series on bullpens, the NL Central.

This division boasts some certainty in the closer role for each of the teams in it.  Let’s take a look at the current state of each bullpen in the NL Central.  This division appears to be up for grabs in 2024, and the bullpens could help win or lose the title.  Who are the key players for each team?

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National League Central Bullpen Preview

Chicago Cubs

Adbert Alzolay was a revelation last year for the Chicago Cubs.  Alzolay posted 22 saves last year for a resurgent team.  Looking at his pitch mix, we can see that he relied more heavily on his slider in 2023, up to 45% from about 33% in 2022.  With that change, he also added two ticks to his velocity on it as well (85.4 MPH to 87.5 MPH), while also reducing his four-seam fastball usage from about 37% to 21%.  In the process, he lowered his BB% to 5.1, which was a career-best for Alzolay.  Alzolay would appear to be the closer without competition going into 2024. Beware though: there was a forearm issue late in the season and Alzolay struggles to get left-handed hitters out.

The Cubs signed veteran righty Hector Neris, and he could get save opportunities depending on how new manager Craig Counsell decides to deploy Alzolay. Neris has experience in both closing and high-leverage roles.  This will be a situation to watch.  Could Counsell use Alzolay as a multiple-inning weapon this year, leaving the saves to Neris?

Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr. were both bulwarks of the bullpen last season.  Merryweather earned five wins and two saves, to go along with 17 holds and 98 punchouts in 72 innings. Leiter had four saves and 28 holds, among the top five relievers in holds.  Merryweather feels like the safer bet to roster here as Leiter struggled in the second half.  If injuries were to befall Alzolay, Merryweather would be the handcuff here for saves.

Another name to watch here in the Cubs’ bullpen is Luke Little.

Cincinnati Reds

Alexis Diaz seized the Reds’ closer job early on and was splendid in the role, especially in the first half of the season.  Diaz finished the season with nine wins, 37 saves, a 3.07 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP, and 86 punchouts in 67.1 innings.  While six of those wins came after the All-Star Break, only 11 of the saves did, as the second half was a study in control and command issues.  The 4.61 ERA and 1.43 WHIP after the ASB give pause, but the 30.1 K% makes me believe that he could be an excellent closer again with a clean slate to begin 2024.  We need to watch the free passes though: how long can Diaz live on the edge with a 12.6 BB%?  Egads!

There are some questions to answer behind Diaz in the Cincinnati bullpen.  My perennial favorite sleeper for saves, Lucas Sims, remains and quietly had a nice season.  Sims posted seven wins, three saves, and 23 holds.  Sims figures to reprise his eighth-inning role in 2024. The team also signed veteran righthander Emilio Pagan, who figures to have a higher leverage role here.

Ian Gibaut and Sam Moll have limited value, although Gibaut did post 23 holds and eight wins last year.

An interesting name here potentially is Fernando Cruz. He’s a late-round dart throw for me this year.  I know the 4.91 ERA might scare some off, but the 98 strikeouts in 66 innings and whopping 35.1 K% are eye-popping.  If Diaz continues to struggle with walks, perhaps Cruz will get a chance.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers boast the best bullpen in the division and one of the best in the game.  Devin Williams posted 36 saves in his first full season as closer, with eight wins, a microscopic 1.53 ERA, a .92 WHIP, and 87 strikeouts in 58.1 innings.  Some people will cite the walk rate (12.1%) as a concern, but the ridiculous 37.7 K% makes that feel like nitpicking.  Draft with confidence as one of the top five closers this spring.

The Brewers have plenty of arms behind Williams.  Joel Payamps came out of nowhere to be one of the top setup men in the game with seven wins, three saves, 27 holds, and a 2.55 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.  Payamps does not have a high K rate but is fantasy gold in saves + holds leagues.

Abner Uribe (eight holds) and Elvis Peguero (12 holds) will also have large roles in this bullpen. Both have potential for more but both also struggle with command and control issues.

Trevor Megill is another name to watch for here; his fastball velocity is in the 99th percentile in MLB, and he opened some eyes with his second-half performance in Milwaukee.  He could be a good source of strikeouts and holds potentially.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Hometown hero David Bednar leads an interesting bullpen. Bednar continues to be their cornerstone, and the Pirates’ top brass appeared to ignore offers for him at the last trade deadline. And you can understand why: tied for second in all of MLB with 39 saves with a tidy 2.00 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. Bednar appears poised for another 30+ save season but expect some regression in the ratios.  Draft Bednar with confidence for the saves.

Aroldis Chapman was signed and should be the main setup guy in the eighth inning.  The Pirates could look to flip him at the trade deadline if they are not in contention.  The stuff remains filthy even if the command can be a little iffy.

The Pirates boast two interesting holds candidates as well, Colin Holderman and Carmen Mlodzinski. Holderman was among the MLB leaders in holds with 27, and adding a sweeper to his pitch mix made him a viable add in leagues that count holds.  You won’t get tons of strikeouts with him 58 in 56 innings) or ratio help (3.86 ERA, 1.34 WHIP), but you will see lots of groundballs (53.8%, 89th percentile in MLB), and if you are after holds, he’s a good one.  Mlodzinski chipped in with 10 holds as well and could earn more in 2024.

Dauri Moreta and Ryan Borucki should be middle relief options.

St. Louis Cardinals

Ryan Helsley with health should close for the Cardinals in 2024. Helsley had a year for the ages in 2022, and most pundits expected some pullback from that historic season.  Yet Helsley struggled with health on his way to a scant 33 appearances.  The fastball velocity remained elite at 99.7 MPH and the slider was effective as well. Helsley ended the 2023 season with 14 saves. Manager Oliver Marmol has shown some propensity to mix and match his bullpen pieces, but a healthy Helsley is their best arm by far. I would expect upwards of 30 saves if he is capable of closing again. The good news (we hope) is that he seemed to finish the season with good health.

Giovanny Gallegos is a usually steady presence in the bullpen and also has closing experience. Gallegos had 10 saves and 20 holds last season, but overuse showed in his 4.42 ERA.  Gallegos has had his most success as a multiple-inning weapon, and I would expect that he would be in that role again in St. Louis. The Cards very quietly added former Tampa Bay closer Andrew Kittredge this winter, and he could find his way into save chances here as well. He figures to be a key cog in the bullpen this year.

JoJo Romero was a nice surprise in 2023 and should retain a leverage role this season.  He had four wins, three saves, and three holds.  He did close for a bit but seemed miscast in that role. Andre Pallante should also serve in a swing role.   The Cardinals could benefit from adding more to their bullpen here, and a veteran or two could help the team navigate a winnable NL Central.

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